Discours de remerciement – Berne, 18.11.1997 (anglais)

États-Unis/Sri Lanka

Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah

Prix Balzan 1997 pour l'anthropologie sociale

Pour sa pénétrante analyse socio-anthropologique des problèmes contemporains fondamentaux posés par la violence ethnique dans le Sud-Est asiatique, ainsi que pour ses études originales sur les mécanismes des sociétés bouddhistes, qui ont ouvert la voie à une approche socio-anthropologique novatrice et rigoureuse de l’étude des fonctionnements internes de différentes civilisations.

It would seem that I am the first social and cultural anthropologist to receive this prestigious and generous prize, and I accept it less as an award to me personally and more as a recognition that my discipline has something worthwhile to say about the unity of mankind as well as the variety, richness and problems of its civilizational manifestations.

At the same time, do want to recognize what the prize does for me, despite the dismay that a large chunk of it will be taken from me by Uncle Sam’s Internal Revenue Service. What remains of the prize will facilitate my retirement from Harvard University so that I can devote all of my remaining time to completing my research and writing projects. That is the best way I can celebrate, honor and justify the Balzan Foundation’s benefaction.

Many parts of the globe, especially the former USSR, Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, have in recent times erupted in what has come to be labelled ethnonationalist movements and ethnic conflicts. Since 1983, myself have been much concerned with portraying and interpreting, with special reference to South and Southeast Asia, the challenges to postcolonial nation states mounted by ethnonationalist movements, challenges fuelled by tensions in the relations between majorities and minorities in plural societies, tensions exacerbated by competitive participatory democracy as the primary means by which power Is won and resources secured. Violence as a mode of conducting politics has become so endemic and systematised in many countries that it is imperative that social scientists address this development.

Identities in terms of religious, linguistic, territorial and ethnic affiliations have become labels in terms of which large numbers of people are being mobilized as collectivities in political arenas for purposes of securing resources, education, employment, and capital, both material and symbolic. Moreover, we are faced with the disconcerting realization that while the process of economic development generates wealth and benefits and stimulates population movements in search of employment, it also simultaneously engenders inequalities of distribution, relative deprivations, social tensions and ethnic conflicts.

Thus a general issue today is how to secure the political viability and maintenance of plural multicultural societies, how to creatively forge arrangements for coalitionist politics, power sharing, conflict resolution and tolerant coexistence, and how to balance national or federal interests with those of regions and subnational collectivises.

In this context, let me also refer to a complicated and vexed issue that confronts many countries notably in Asia, though the West is not devoid of if. It concerns how the state (or the nation state) should and can relate to the religion, or more usually the multiple religions, practiced within its bounds. The concepts of “secularism” and “secularization” historically and philosophically have their origin in western civilizations. The conundrum that faces many Asians with regard to the question of the linkage between religion and politics is this: While they should make the effort to comprehend and appreciate the reasons for the rejection of western secularism by certain of their religious communities, they also have to face up to the issue of what policy to put in its place in an arena where multiple communities with divergent religions, political and social agendas, and within religious communities, sectarian groups and dissenting rivals, contest each other and make claims which threaten to endanger the public peace and engender conflict and violence as well as discrimination and inequality among citizens who in principle must enjoy the same civil and human rights and should live in peaceful coexistence.

There is one other development that beckons increasing attention. It concerns the enormous transnational movements of people for various reasons: in search of employment in the more prosperous industrialized or industrializing countries as guest workers or as immigrants; and as a result of forced displacement of people owing to civil wars and the pogroms of ethnic cleansing and genocide. In short, there is an intensification in the creation of diverse diaspora populations in many locations, who are engaged in complex interpersonal and intercultural interactions both with their host societies and their societies of origin. In relation to the host societies these interactions involve, among other things, social processes of accommodation and contestation, and re-creations of traditional life together with hybrid adaptations of the old and the new.

In respect of the societies of origin, they involve pilgrimages of return, remittances, and nostalgic and problematic involvements in local politics. Two parallel and intertwined developments deserve dose study, namely the scale and intensification of transnational movements of people and the modern information revolution (the technology of television, audio and video cassette, and the internet) enabling speedy, even instant, communication over vast distances. These developments are so powerfully affecting the pluralist interactions of people and their intercultural perceptions that they contradict the pronouncements of some conspicuous political prophets of doom in the United States which assert that the end of the Cold War will inexorably be succeeded by a new “clash of civilizations” divided by primordial and deep faults of culture, language, religion and tradition, and that the western bloc, led by the United States and Western Europe, should retreat into isolationism to protect its interests.

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